‘Think outside our walls’

By on November 5, 2022

Churches encouraged to address community mental health, harm reduction

Rev. Jessica Stokes (right), and Elizabeth Brewington of North Carolina Council of Churches speaking on Nov. 3 at St. Andrew’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Nags Head. (Photo credit: Corinne Saunders)

Speaking to local faith leaders on Nov. 3, Reverend Jessica Stokes from the N.C. Council of Churches encouraged their organizations to “think outside our walls” and take pragmatic steps to address mental health and harm reduction in the community.

“As children of God, we already have inherent dignity,” Stokes said. “All of our dignity is intertwined. If your dignity is harmed, then my dignity is harmed.”

About 45 people representing 20 different faith organizations attended the Nov. 3 presentation called “Growing Communities of Inclusion: Mental Health and Harm Reduction,” held at St. Andrew’s by the Sea Church in Nags Head. The event was organized by the Dare County Saving Lives Task Force.

Stokes said churches should “reframe mental health and harm reduction as an opportunity instead of a challenge.” Part of this reframing, she said, includes using “person-first” language, such as “a person with substance use disorder” instead of “an addict.”

“Productive language is vital,” Stokes said. “Eliminating stigma saves lives.”

Stokes and co-presenter Elizabeth Brewington shared practical ideas that faith communities can implement to advance mental health and harm reduction efforts.

These can include training congregation members in “mental health first aid” and the use of the rescue drug naloxone; hosting medication take-back programs in conjunction with local law enforcement; establishing job, housing and transportation ministries; creating a syringe exchange program; offering a variety of support groups; and preaching about mental health to reduce its stigma.

Rev. Dr. Arlecia Simmons, East Regional Associate Director for the North Carolina Council of Churches, said the Council’s Partners in Health and Wholeness program provides statewide grant opportunities for faith communities in areas ranging from healthy eating to opioid overdose crisis and substance use.

Simmons said she looked forward to working with each faith community as its leaders prepare pledges or grant applications. “I work together with you to help to carry out the vision—helping you flesh out and figure out what the vision is for your faith community,” she said, noting that programs that work on the Outer Banks might not work in Fayetteville, and vice-versa.

Wally Overman, co-chair of the Saving Lives Task Force, encouraged pastors to attend task force meetings. While a large segment of the county is represented in meetings, “underrepresented are ministers,” he said. The task force has a faith-based subcommittee.

In a panel discussion after the presentation, Keith Hamm of Integrated Family Services said that its Mobile Crisis program, which covers eastern North Carolina, including Dare County, is “extraordinarily underutilized.”

Within two hours from the time of receiving a call, Mobile Crisis sends a professional counselor to any person’s home or public meeting place, free of charge. The program operates “24/7/365,” Hamm said.

Panelist Rev. Gina Miller, of Saint John United Methodist in Avon, said that when she came to Avon seven years ago, she was “not prepared for the substance use disorder” that she encountered in the community.

Miller said she has partnered with professionals, sitting and praying with people while waiting for a trained Mobile Crisis therapist to arrive, and she also keeps NARCAN® and fentanyl test strips in the church’s food pantry, which “fly out.”

Stokes had similarly noted the importance of church staff making professional referrals: “If we’re truly helping, loving and supporting our people in need, we are getting them to the help they need.”

For more information, visit www.savinglivesobx.com, www.integratedfamilyservices.net or www.ncchurches.org.


  • Glenn

    For the past decade, if not longer, churches of all denominations have been asleep at the wheel. My family and I grew up in the church and have also strived to follow the Bible’s teachings but we have been immensely disappointed with “today’s” church. Seems that, more often than not, the entire focus is on collecting tithes and offerings and getting money rather than to truly minister to this ailing nation of ours. So very disappointed in today’s church…again, with extremely few exceptions.

    Saturday, Nov 5 @ 4:50 pm
  • Eugene

    I’ve been working in the mental health field for over 40 years, and have witnessed the following first hand. Approximately halfway through the article a sentence ends “preaching about mental health to reduce its stigma.” That door swings both ways, there’s a stigma about mental health in the world of religion, and there’s a stigma about religion in mental health. Thank you Outer Banks Voice for posting the article. As a part-time resident of the area, I will work towards doing my part to help the community.

    Sunday, Nov 6 @ 6:55 am
  • The Captain

    Admirable endeavor. However, I believe Mental Health and Drug Use are related but Help and Assistance take two very different paths. True Mental disorders take very specialized schooling, training and experience. Drug Addiction can not be treated with enabling people with supplies and counseling. It goes way beyond. It should be a major priority of the United States to shut down drug trade. Yeah and I want World Peace too.

    Sunday, Nov 6 @ 7:48 am
  • JustSaying

    @Captain: You said, “Drug Addiction can not be treated with enabling people with supplies and counseling.” Really??? How can counseling be “enabling”? You also mention “true mental disorders”. What fake mental disorders are you referring too?

    Monday, Nov 7 @ 8:11 am
  • Hal McCray

    “Human dignity” starts with acknowledging that life starts at conception and we can give human dignity unless we allow them to be born.

    Wednesday, Nov 9 @ 10:21 am